The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, March 20, 2003

British glam rock was the sort of movement which only could have happened in the midst of an energy crisis. It’s entirely logical. The resources had been vastly depleted by the psychedelic adventures of the ‘60s, where every last atom of sound and surprise had been thrown into even the most routine 7-incher, where every double-flange and Leslie cabinet distorted vocal could contain its own universe, where no orchestra was too big for the humblest quartet of garage mechanics from Salford. Even the less exalted records of the era, such as Odessey And Oracle, recorded in Abbey Road studio downtime for the 1968 equivalent of tuppence halfpenny, sound intrinsically epic in their fabric.

Come the early ‘70s, however, when Heath urged us to “Save It!,” resources were running low and some sonic rationing had to take place. Thus, for instance, the adjustment of Tyrannosaurus Rex into the economy-sized T Rex. Symphonic sounds and priceless special effects did persist, but were only used by the wealthiest operatives, those groups with most space to squander with their self-imposed angst; the post-Barrett Floyd, the Moody Blues, Yes, ELP. They were loved astronomically but Economically They Were Setting A Bad Example and Furthermore Were Not Pop. When it came to singles, economising made itself indispensable. Out went the 90-piece orchestras and backwards tapes; in came less - basic guitar/drums/bass line-ups, make do and mend. It’s significant that much of glam harked back consciously to the ‘50s ideal of rock and roll; it was time to Fight The Flab and get Back To The Basics. Instead of cavernous, post-Spector echoes, there was a distinct dryness to early ‘70s Britpop; blunt, crisp, close-miked drumming, a deadening of echo with the exception of just one single, Gene Vincent-style effect – and even the latter was deployed to devastating effect by Mike Leander and Gary Glitter on their initial run of hits. Listening to “Rock & Roll Part 2” and discarding personal controversies, it’s noticeable how dehumanised this 1972 glam sound was. Leander and Glitter may have already been vaguely conscious of what Perry and Gibbs were concocting in Jamaican studios at the time; certainly this is dub in excelsis, the shouts, the exhortations, brutally edited, their wings clipped, just another rhythmic element in the sparsely-populated whole (also compare the equally brutal “soul” cut-ups in 1986-7 hip hop; Eric B similarly reducing Bobby Byrd’s “emotion” to a series of signifiers). As with Jeff Wayne’s similarly startling production template on David Essex’s “Rock On,” one is aware of how much is missing from the record, as if they ran out of funds before they could complete it; it’s the absences which make this music compelling (this fascination with the spatial also sprang to mind when listening to the new Mover album, of which more anon).

Moreover, with the very singular exceptions of the frontrunners like Bolan, Bowie, Ferry/Eno – and the singular, because female, because American, exception of Suzi Quatro - most glammers were distinctly unsexy; the oft-repeated cliché of brickies dressing up, or more accurately long-serving veteran also-rans who slogged unsuccessfully throughout the ‘60s and suddenly saw their chance. Brian Connolly or Noddy Holder could never be thought of as sexy; those who consciously went for the androgyny angle – Dave Hill, Steve Priest – were demonstrably a comedy turn. Even Mick Ronson, when disengaged from Bowie’s embrace, was revealed as just another Jeff Beck disciple from Hull.

Bearing all of this in mind, how best to approach a new compilation which has come my way entitled Velvet Tinmine – 20 Junk Shop Glam Ravers. The title immediately had me on my guard – is this going to be yet another dreary exercise in faux-irony, another I Love Never Mind The Top Ten Of Five Seconds Ago-style “OH GOD WHAT WERE WE THINKING NYAH HAHAH” sneer? Another Kenny Everett’s World’s Worst Record Album (in fact, one track is shared with both compilations, Tubthumper’s “Kick Out The Jams,” although the Everett compilation has a different and punchier mix of the track, complete with church bells, car crashes, which the recording on Velvet Tinmine slightly lacks)? Well, not quite. For a start, the album is at least part-compiled and annotated by Bob Stanley, a man I know to be of usually impeccable taste (and he contributes a typically fine, informative and comprehensive sleevenote). Does “Junk Shop Glam” exist as a genre or was it just made up? Certainly most of these 20 tracks could, over the years, have been yours for a few pence, following a careful inspection of local charity shops; de-glamourised glam, glam which, because of the sheer weight of singles being unleashed even 30 years ago, never got the chance to be glamorous because it never got heard – although I am old enough to remember many of these records being played on Radio Luxembourg and advertised in long-extinct journals such as Disc and Music Echo.

The album begins with the track which was always the most likely of these to have become a proper hit – “Rebels Rule” by Edinburgh’s Iron Virgin. Deploying a “Can The Can” rhythm track and Connolly-esque vocals, this record is squarely and lyrically pitched at the level of schoolboy rebellion; much of this stuff was specifically aimed at 14-16 year olds (even though most of the artists were already twice their age). It also reminds me of the peculiarly symbiotic relationship which glam had with heavy rock. It’s arguable that the most important and influential band in relation to the British singles charts of the ‘70s was the one most conspicuous by their deliberate absence from these charts – Led Zeppelin. It only takes a tweak to change the Page/Plant thrust into chewable Chinnichap (which I intend as a compliment to both parties), and it’s equally relevant that in 1974, just as glam was starting to wane commercially, there emerged perhaps the biggest commercial success story from the entire movement – those late starters from Feltham, Queen (such a glam name!). The ghost of Brian Connolly never lurks far away from that of Freddie Mercury (“Killer Queen” – a Sweet single in all but name). Anyhow, Queen broke through but lots of others didn’t, including Iron Virgin, who promptly disappeared back to Edinburgh and the world of Proper Jobs.

Hello did enjoy a brief spell of success in the glam autumn of ‘74/5 – and you can’t argue with the avant-Bo Diddley goes dub of “New York Groove” – but their 1973 single “Another School Day,” recorded when they were still 16, appears here, and sounds remarkably mature and punchy, with the oddly blank voice of Bob Bradbury its still centre. Again, though, note the references to “blue suede shoes.” It’s hard to shake off history (the apparent sonic extravagance of Roy Wood’s Wizzard epics were also rattled out on the turn of a dime), but the song’s worn better than “Toughen Up” by the Arrows, the latter’s follow-up to their solitary top ten hit “Touch Too Much” and a straightforward “Not Fade Away” cop which unsurprisingly failed to trouble the scorers (just as the Sweet’s contemporaneous attempt to grow hairs on their already over-hairy chests, “Turn It Down,” similarly stiffed just outside the top 40). Growing up in glam was a distinct disadvantage if you weren’t a smart operative like Bowie.

The Slade influence is palpable in a couple of tracks; there’s former Gary Glitter support act Crunch with their “Gudbuy T’Jane” derived “Let’s Do It Again” in which one is instructed to “clap your hands and stamp your feet.” More astonishing, however, is “Kick Your Boots Off” by the utterly obscure (and very male) Sisters, which is nothing less than a glam march (though note yet more school references, and the hilariously endearing “We’re gonna go on forever/But we’re gonna keep it clean!”) – the exact midpoint between “Coz I Luv You” and “Vindaloo.” From one perspective, images are conjured up of Billy Dainty, or Bernie Clifton, or even the young Michael Barrymore, sauntering onstage in a dreary edition of Seaside Special. But, from another perspective, check also the atonal yodelling/guitar squalls which take over towards the fadeout and which seem to point squarely towards the ultimate realisation/detonation of avant-glam which was the first Earl Brutus album (discussed in detail on CoM last summer).

Some things here are fairly palpable cash-in attempts, such as the unfortunate Brett Smiley – a protégé of Andrew Loog Oldham – whose Bowie-worshipping, solitary single “Va Va Va Voom” appears here. Now we are reaching the territory which Lawrence of Denim was subsequently to colonise; de-rocked guitars co-existing with squelching synths. Hear “Morning Bird” by the Damned (no, not that one) which, as the sleevenote readily admits, is essentially the riff to Geordie’s weird ’73 top tenner “All Because Of You” welded to a Chicory Tip backing track with odd Macca-esque vocals entering here and there. Or how about Fancy’s reading of “Wild Thing” – Helen Caunt’s Cadbury Drinking Chocolate breathy vocals are the only vaguely sexual element of an otherwise completely routine performance. Occasionally the music sags into glorified proto-AoR (Shakane’s “Love Machine,” Warwick’s “Let’s Get The Party Going” which would be guaranteed to put the kibosh on any party, even in 1975, and sounds like a prototype for the ghastly Smokie) or rather routine pub rock (Barry Blue, the future producer of Heatwave, slumming it in Big Wheel’s “Shake A Tail Part 1”) – although note the cheerfully apocalyptic lyrics of the musically benign “The Comets Are Coming” by the Washington Flyers, and compare with Ferry’s contemporaneous reading of “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with Mackay and Manzanera dive-bombing their agonies around his near-epileptic vocal. Much of this music is clearly a xerox of pop, rather than pop itself – which, of course, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing.

Occasionally 14-16 year olds would be drafted in to make the records themselves, in the wake of the Jackson Five and the Osmonds. Good to see that both Simon Turner and Ricky Wilde are represented here, though sadly in both instances it’s with the wrong song. Turner, later Simon Fisher Turner of King of Luxembourg/Derek Jarman soundtracking fame, contributes the Jonathan King-written/produced “(Baby) I Gotta Go,” but his vocal is almost an understudy for that of King himself, and the production seems curiously unfinished – almost like a demo. Better, perhaps, to have included his peculiarly chilling reading of Bowie’s “Prettiest Star” or 1974’s astonishing “She Was Just A Young Girl,” the progenitor of which latter epic of doomed love ends up being run over by a train.

Ricky Wilde appears here with “I Wanna Go To A Disco” – and yes, vocally he does sound remarkably like his sister would a few years later (although I swear I can hear Kim among the backing vocalists), and indeed one can already discern the elements which would culminate in masterpieces like “Chequered Love.” But “Teen Wave” is his great record; a frenetic rave-up with taped screams which more or less writes the blueprint for Andrew “69” WK, and let’s hope it turns up on a future volume.

Flame were EMI’s latecomers; very late indeed, in the case of their 1977 single “Big Wheel Turning” which sounds fine in a post-Denim world, but, released as it was in the same month as “I Feel Love” and “Pretty Vacant,” must then have seemed horribly out of time and place. And we mustn’t disregard – as easy as it would be to do so – “Bay City Rollers We Love You” by the Tartan Horde, whose vocalist (even speeded up) is unmistakably Nick Lowe. Recorded as an apparently heartfelt tribute in 1975, with a picture sleeve including Rat Scabies in the line-up, their smiles are of course those of the eventual assassins – and Lowe’s production of the Damned’s “New Rose” some 18 months later was one of the main death blows. Another late entry comes from Bearded Lady, with their 1975 flop “Rock Star.” Johnny Waughman’s semi-sneered vocal looks at least sideways at punk (well, perhaps Eddie and the Hot Rods) but the lumpen rhythm and stodgy guitars both needed to go.

That just leaves two singular oddities. Firstly, “Neo City” by the Plod, a band who never got past the demo stage and whose main claim to fame is that one of their number was the future Independent pop poet Martin Newell. Even as a demo, “Neo City” sounds far and away the most sophisticated thing here, a pleasingly askew exercise in proto-powerpop which stands up remarkably well and, if done by the Coral or the Music, would be instantly acclaimed a masterpiece.

That just leaves the wild cards in the pack – Stavely Makepeace, aka Lieutenant Pigeon. It comes as no surprise that SM’s mainmen, Rob Woodward and Nigel Fletcher, were Joe Meek fanatics (indeed, “Mouldy Old Dough,” the only one of their 30+ singles which struck lucky commercially and an international chart-topper and multi-million seller in 1972, I have always considered a “had Joe Meek lived he would have produced this” record), and, much as “A Girl Like You” has done for Edwyn Collins, the success of “Mouldy Old Dough” seems to have allowed them the financial freedom to pursue their very singular take on home-made not-quite-pop, with Rob’s mother Hilda Woodward at one of two pianos in their front room. “Slippery Rock ‘70s” is the strangest and most avant-garde track here, and the title indicates a great degree of self-awareness which surely must have influenced Saint Etienne, even if only indirectly; a cheery piano refrain with weirdly high-pitched vocal/synth darts weaving in and out of the track almost randomly. “They deserve a definitive anthology and a hefty reappraisal” says Stanley, to which I add my amen – I want to hear more of this.

And more of this music in general. This excellent compilation certainly isn’t a sneer of ridicule – it’s a serious attempt to re-evaluate a dark corner of music whose potential has barely begun to be sniffed at, and it’s as lovingly assembled as any good Northern Soul compilation (and there’s another, much longer, essay which someone will have to write – probably me in the fullness of time, as one who was there and participated – about the sonic and societal parallels between glam and Northern Soul). It’s about reclaiming our past to help construct a future. Which, as well you know, The Church Of Me tries to do on a regular basis.

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